Nke si ibe ya ebela
Nku kwaa ya!
-- Igbo proverb
My performance of my Igboness, as in my possessing and announcing a name that is proudly and loudly Igbo, my mode of dressing, my attempt at using some Igbo configurations in public discourse, my claim to some knowledge of my Igbo culture and attempt to use such knowledge in my academic life, all seem to annoy the Nigerian ethnic Other sometimes, and even some Igbo people for whom denial of ethnic selfhood is a better means of presenting the self before the Other. One finds traces of such annoyance in their comments that refer to my “unduly” performed Igboness. Is he the only Igbo person around? He wants to be more Igbo than every other Igbo person! He is an Okonkwo! Or even in the way I am hailed when I appear in Igbo traditional attire: “Onye Igbo!” Igwe!” “Okoro!” But when I accept assimilation by putting on the traditional attire of the ethnic Other and speaking the language of the ethnic Other, I do not attract any attention and do not receive any hailing! And I begin to wonder: how much Igboness is enough? How much Igboness is tolerable? Can one be too Igbo? Do I have to apologize to other people for my being Igbo and wanting to show that I treasure my Igboness? Do I have to deny my ethnic self in order to make other non-Igbo people happy? Does my being Igbo prevent the Other from achieving a fuller, different ethnicity? Why is my Igboness considered offensive, to the extent that the Other wants it erased or silenced?
I am indeed puzzled when I am told that I am too Igbo, or that I want to be more Igbo than other Igbo people. So, if there are other Igbo people who want to deny their Igboness, or want to opt out of the Igbo nation, I should also deny my Igboness, or perform a perfunctory Igboness, in order to be approved by the Other? How can the ethnic Other now have the measuring rod for determining moderate Igboness and excessive Igboness?
When I am hailed as “Onye Igbo!” because I have manifested my Igboness, I am being told that my Igboness is a liability. I am being told that my Igboness is a deviation from the norm that is the cultural identity of the Other. I am being made to feel ashamed of being Igbo (which is why perhaps some Igbo people think that they are being praised and considered desirable when they are told, “Oh, you don’t look Igbo,” or “You don’t behave like Igbo people”). And I wonder, how can my celebration of my identity in speech and appearance be such a problem for the Other, while the Other’s celebration of his or her identity is not?
Being Igbo has not become pejorative (which the Other indirectly wants me to believe) and will never be. Pejorative Igboness (as being constructed through contemporary commercialized humour in Nigeria, through media hypes about what happens in the governance of Igbo states in the Igbo homeland, through Nollywood fictions about the cultism of Igbo businessmen, through insult on Igbo traditional religion, etc) will always be a continuation of war against the Igbo by other means.
Perhaps the presence of the ethnic me is enough to annoy, my presence instead of absence. Instead of self-with-the-other, it is self-without-the-other. Presence appears threatening, already always. Presence here and there. Presence in the same postcolonial nation-state. Presence even in cyberspace, which, in its illusion, promised an exile from contested physical spaces. It is as if the Self prevents the fullness of the Other. But the Igbo have a theory for it, a theory encapsulated in the proverb, “Mbe naabo zua ahia, uru anaghi adi ya” (When two tortoises do business with each other, none of them walks away with a profit). The Theory of “Tortoise to Tortoise,” as I would like to call it, asserts that one tortoise never likes the presence of another, so that tricks won’t fall in price.
Does the ethnic Other recognize me? Can the ethnic Other still accept to recognize me when I am present?
I am located at the margin of phonic error. I am the error. And also the imagined terror. The Other cannot articulate me and my Igbo name, or pretends not to be able to. Watch how the ethnic Other deliberately tries to make me appear strange and unwelcome. Decidedly, I am pronounced wrongly; pronounced wrong. Even if the Other knows how to pronounce my name right. Even if the Other can try. Even if. I am better distorted. I, the Igbo, a distortion.
This distortion is the Other’s horn of humour. The Other drinks me down, I the strange. There was once an Igbo man who did this and that and those. There was an Igbo woman who did this and that and those. There was an Igbo chicken that did this and that and those. And the audience laughs and laughs and laughs. It is a night of a thousand ethnic bites!
And beyond humour, I am considered a risk. And we know risks are very risky! Which is why people always try to deal with them before they can have a rest of mind.
Having a name whose sound disturbs is bad enough. Worse when one holds on to Igbo culture and values. A greater risk is the one that wants to promote some intellectual Igboness. Have the Igbo got any ideas? How can he talk about Igbo ideas? The gods and goddesses of the Other are very divine, very scientific, and have got all the answers to civilization. The gods and goddesses of the Other wear jeans and eat at McDonalds; Igbo gods and goddesses drink blood in groves and shrines at Okija. The gods and goddesses of the ethnic Other speak poststructuralist language and own the Web; mine are represented as blockheads. The shrines of the gods and goddesses of the Other are international tourist sites. Igbo shrines are only remembered in discourses about corruption and its link with the occult. Igbo gods and goddesses are terribly guilty of Igboness and must be violated, if they cannot be stripped of their Igbocentricity.
Being Igbo, bad enough.
Using one’s Igbo ideas, annoying.
Making one’s Igboness visible, unsettling.